This paper presents a study undertaken as part of the Technical Language and Semantic Shift in Middle English project. Our dataset (totalling 4,628 words and 2,215 senses) is drawn from an expanded corpus of the Bilingual Thesaurus of Everyday Life in Medieval England. This lexis has been arranged into a semantic hierarchy, based on the categories devised for the Historical Thesaurus of English, in order to address a much discussed feature of language change that has not been investigated using a lexical corpus. The project aims to use this digitised hypernymic framework to track shift at various levels of technicality, collate data on borrowing and obsolescence, and examine the linguistic ecology of the Middle English period from a semantic-hierarchic viewpoint.
Autohyponyms from two domains (Farming and Trade) were collated and compared with the wider corpus for specificity, lexicalisation and language of origin. Our findings suggest that terms which narrow or broaden in meaning tend to start off at the more general levels of the hierarchy and shift from semantic spaces which have a higher than average number of co-hyponyms. Autohyponyms appear more likely to be of French than of Old English origin, prompting further questions about borrowing and sense development.